Options and Liberalism Again

I have written previously on the so-called “Benedict Option” and the difficulties it presents (see, e.g., here, here, and here). It appears that commenting on the “Benedict Option” — or any other “option” — is turning into a growth industry. A quick glance at Ethika Politika reveals several pieces on the topic, including Andrew Lynn’s “Saving the Benedict Option from Culture War Conservatism” and Jeff Guhin’s “No Benedict Option Without Benedictines.” The latter piece is rather pessimistic, declaring that not only is “liberalism is hard to shake” but that “[w]e are all liberals now.”

Those aren’t new observations, mind you, but that doesn’t make them any less unsettling. In 1932, during his review of Carl Schmitt’s controversial and pathclearing The Concept of the Political, Leo Strauss opined on the difficulties of deconstructing liberal thought before concluding that Schmitt, a self-professed enemy of liberalism, had failed to find a horizon beyond liberalism. By relying heavily on Thomas Hobbes, a thinker Strauss believed to be one of the progenitors of liberalism, Schmitt had unintentionally and perhaps unknowingly accepted liberal premises about the proper nature of political society right out of the gate. For according to Strauss, Hobbes makes plain the heart of liberalism by pointing to the summum malum: fear of violent death. Liberalism’s “virtue” is that it promises a way out by reducing political society to a mundane peace pact with no demands, but no character as well. “I’m ok, you’re ok” is, in a vulgar sense, the liberal motto. Striving for the common good is replaced by avoiding the greatest evil, and the only cost is our souls.

Guhin is aware of this in his own way. He notes, for instance, that people can choose more communitarian lifestyles, but most won’t. And even when some choose to go that route, the very fact they have a choice at all is indicative of the liberal order in which they live. There is no “right choice” or “wrong choice”; there are only choices — and the more the merrier. Let no choice encroach upon another, then everything on earth shall be fine and there will be much rejoicing in Heaven.

Now, will Benedictines save the world? Can any monastic community be more than ornamental on the liberal landscape? Maybe those are secondary questions to ask. The primary conundrum is whether any form of anti-liberalism, be it communitarian or integralist, can ever overcome the ornamental stage. Can it ever be more than a “preference”? That question has been considered here before as well, albeit in a different light than the one I am comfortable with at the moment.

If it is possible to reject liberalism in a liberal world and, from there, live out that rejection, then certainly monastic communities provide the beginnings of a framework for doing so. At the same time, however, they can also reinforce the illusion of escapism — an illusion more likely to attract single, young men than families with children. There are mouths to feed, bills to pay, and an uncertain future to prepare for (or against). What becomes of those who simply cannot afford the “Benedict Option,” that is, those lacking publication proceeds and/or tenure? If anti-liberalism, or any option against it, remains predicated on annual earnings, then liberalism wins hands down. The question of options turns into a question about class, and that question won’t be addressed by any six-figure luminaries anytime soon.


  1. You can hardly see mention of “the Benedict option” without seeing the Amish brought up as what is supposed to be an obvious negative example. BO supporters are quick to say ‘this is not Amish!’ and critics say “this is basically just going Amish.’ Having worked and lived directly and almost exclusively with Amish for the last seven years, I think this knee jerk repugnance is seriously misguided. Outside of their heretical theology I think the most accurate and concise description I could give for the Amish is “Benedictines moderated to be compatible with family life.” The Amish are not just quirky liberals – they do not choose Amishness as one of a wide variety of lifestyle options. Without encroaching on the State’s monopoly on violence they still maintain discipline and the dominion of God very effectively. And they manage to resist the encroachment of the state on God’s dominion by maintaining group coherence and engaging in civil disobedience until the state makes room for them. The biggest knock on them, besides lots of heresy of course, is that they don’t contribute to civil society. That’s wrong for two reasons. First, as I say they have carved out numerous precedents for religious communities avoiding the intrusion of civil law. Secondly, as they grow in number and geographic distribution they are transforming more and more of the countryside simply by their presence and alternative lifestyle. They change society where they are the way trees change a landscape – not by rushing in and taking the reigns of power, but simply by growing and living and expanding their presence which has a natural passive effect. I don’t want Catholics to start wearing straw hats and driving black buggies (like these goofs http://plaincatholic.webs.com/) but I do think we need to start taking the Amish seriously as a successful experiment in illiberal social structures and see what concrete strategies we could use. I certainly see more in them to emulate than I do in celibate monastics or in “six-figure luminaries” as you say.

    1. There is a group closer to home (to Orthodoxy) that lives out a similar “option”: the Old Believers. Like the Amish, they have largely remain in small, close-knit communities; they have limited interaction with the outside, “secular” world; and their lives are regimented by liturgical prayer. Although they are not as against technology as the Amish are, they often keep it at arm’s length, either out of desire or lack of direct access. In a way they provide a “model” for how a Christian community could live if they choose to forsake the world, give up evangelization, and work diligently to save their own souls. I am not sure that is what Christ commands. In fact, it seems to cut against the Great Commission, which is why I can’t really recommend it.

      1. Yes I’ve had that same reservation about the Amish – doesn’t the Lord command us to go out and proclaim the good news? If their way is right, why are they trying to help me get right? They said that in their opinion that command was for a time and place and for certain people, but not for them. In their defense, I think we naturally see the Christianization of the Western world in extreme compression and with extreme close up on the stand out figures of history. Obviously almost all Christians throughout history were only working to save the souls of their own family. Very few were called to evangelize and it took 1,000 years to reach the end of Europe alone. At the rate they are growing the Amish will outnumber the English in America in only 500 years! (Of course their growth rate will surely diminish long before that, but still.) Which brings me to the second point in their defense, by evangelizing their own children with 75% retention they are saving more souls than many missionaries (assuming a pretty liberal belief about salvation). As you probably know, getting 9 of 12 children to stay on the narrow path as adults is no mean feat! I will not be ashamed if I accomplish only that much in my lifetime. What the Amish lack, other than theology and sacraments of course, is any kind of clerical or religious class to do that rare, special work of sharing the message with outsiders. But pairing an Amish or Old Believer style laity with a Catholic or Orthodox clergy and religious class, as we would have to do, would mitigate your criticism wouldn’t it?

        1. But is it for the religious class alone to spread the Gospel? Yes, it is their formal work, but the laity are not exempt from it. I am not sure one can have a closed-off community of laity which also has a religious class that goes forth alone to spread the good news. It would be a new model — one that hasn’t been tried before, I don’t think.

          1. I’m sure you’re more educated in history than I am, but is that not the de facto model for Christian life from pre-Nicene days up through the Reformation at least? What was the average, or even exemplary, Christian householder doing to spread the Gospel in Diocletian’s Rome or in a Medieval village?

      2. “In a way they provide a “model” for how a Christian community could live if they choose to forsake the world, give up evangelization, and work diligently to save their own souls. I am not sure that is what Christ commands. In fact, it seems to cut against the Great Commission, which is why I can’t really recommend it.”

        I believe this to be a fundamental, widespread misunderstanding of the Great Commission. I know that I spent roughly the first 35 years of my life happily agnostic. Then I experienced something which ultimately brought me to Christian belief. At no point in my first 35 years did any preacher or evangelist make a dent by reading from 2000 year old correspondence. Hell, as a younger man I would wake up hungover on Sunday morning and watch Jimmy Swaggart “religiously” just for the entertainment value. But at no point was Jimmy, or any other preacher or evangelist, ever remotely in danger of bringing me to Christian belief. So what good are they with respect to their intended function?

        After I experienced something which finally did bring me to belief, I then began searching out all the churches in my area, seeking the “truest” one. Note that the churches already existed in my area through which I would conduct my search for the truth. In other words, my area had *already* been evangelized.

        I believe the Great Commission to be about setting up churches, and then living a life of *humility* as an example to attract the newly converted. No amount of reading out of an old book is going to truly convert anybody. It might provide somebody with a temporary (or maybe in some cases a lifelong) crutch, but that is not real. Go to the few remaining remote areas of the Amazon jungle and, yes, the Great Commission applies since no churches have been established. But once those churches have been established, then the Great Commission has been fulfilled there.

        As to the Old Believers, they live in areas where churches exist, where the Great Commission has been fulfilled. They then exhibit a powerful evangelistic tool in living a life of humility, completely unconcerned with earthly power. That is the very essence of true Christianity, and something that other established churches in the area all too often fail to demonstrate.

        Humility, humility, humility, Quite reading from the book. Put the book down and evangelize people by leading a life of Christian humility. There is no surer magnet for people caught in the hell of the rat race that is modern society. Unfortunately, all too many who rely upon reading out of the book fail to see that modern society is a living hell. They are the blind leading the blind.

      3. If Anti-Gnostic were here, this is where he’d say every square inch of the earth has been evangelized already so there’s no point in doing so (anyone who wants to convert knows where to go).

        I’m wondering if the lack of proclaiming the Good News is due to lack of belief (on the “believers'” part). Gotta look respectable now.

        1. The Good News is proclaimed in actions, not words. Big difference. Relying on a book that does not convince anybody who does not already believe is what is rooted in a lack of belief.

          1. It’s wonderful that God’s providence reached you in a way particular to you, given your imperviousness to people reading out of the old book or their words. And it’s true that words don’t mean much if there aren’t actions, if there isn’t humility. But I’m sorry, the Great Commission includes words as well, even after churches are planted.

        2. I married into a Middle Eastern family with numerous Muslim friends. I know three elderly, devout Muslims who are among the most gracious, dignified people I know. Tell me in specific detail how I should “evangelize” them.

          I have two Jewish co-workers. How should I “evangelize” them?

          I have a Jehovah’s Witness co-worker who just buried his wife of 40 years in a JW ceremony. What should I tell him about his and his wife’s faith?

          My Episcopalian grandfather’s last words were “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I wasn’t there, but if I was, what should I have whispered into his ear as he breathed his last?

          I’m not a universalist, not by any stretch. So tell me, honestly, how I go about this “evangelizing.”

            1. IOW, you do what I do: act with deference and politeness around people from different cultures.

            2. Who says one has to be rude about these things? Not I. You’re cutting too sharp of an either/or here.

            3. When you were Catholic, you were happy to storm around bellowing, “Error has no rights!” Now you seem to have retreated into ambiguity. Come on Gabby, don’t get all squishy on me here.

            4. Hmm? How have I done that? Just because I put you on the “waste of time” list doesn’t mean I’ve shifted my views.

      4. Tell me what, specifically, you do to fulfill the Great Commission. What do you tell your Jewish, Muslim and Hindu neighbors. For that matter, what do you tell your Baptist and Methodist neighbors.

        Muslims and Hindus move to the West to be good Muslims and Hindus. In such a setting, I’m not sure what sort of evangelizing you’re going to do.

        1. Not sure if you were responding to my comment, Anti-Gnostic. I didn’t mean to imply that the Great Commission absolutely requires words at all times along with actions. Actions are almost always useful; words aren’t always so. Each Christian can only do his or her best to discern when the time is right to speak. Maybe the time is rarely right, but when it is right and one keeps quiet, then something has been lost. My comment was countering the blanket statement that “the Good News is proclaimed in actions, not words,” which seemed to suggest words don’t have their place and which followed assertions suggesting that no unbeliever is ever going to benefit from hearing the words out of the old book that they don’t believe in the first place.

    2. Zeb, you just lost all credibility by calling people “goofs”. Name calling is neither necessary nor mature. You must have an ax to grind with those people.

      RE the Benedict Option, the human race has always searched for a means to grow closer to God. That search spans multiple cultures and many personality styles within those cultures which is often expressed via the charisms found in Catholic spirituality. In my view, this is God using diverse means to draw all to Himself. Can there be one definitive liturgical or spiritual method to reach God? Not likely. Drawing closer to God in any spirituality has one activity in common: prayer.

  2. But would any of us really want to live in such a society, with the full consequences that entails?

      1. Well, exactly. But since nobody really wants this society, nobody is sufficiently motivated to create it – or at least, not enough people are so motivated. That’s the fundamental issue, I think – not finding the right sort of argument.

  3. Traditionalist discussions about the state of American culture often seem to center around the question of when all action became futile.

    Was it 2015? 1965? 1865? 1776? 1517? 1323? Ah, we’re all nominalist protestant Lockean New Dealer Civil Rights liberals now.

    Bonald of the Orthosphere had a link to a blog called Right Scholarship which had a post investigating non-Nietzschean alternatives for conservative action. Anything involving a struggle was considered to be an act of will to power. What was left to be done? My guess is that they would say that to ask, “what is to be done?” is to act upon modern or post-modern premises. So, our response to the world is an elegant fatalism? Eh, who knows . . .

    Now, Rod Dreher has been propounding the Benedict Option because he thinks the oracular ending line to After Virtue was on point. But what if McIntyre was wrong?

    Anyway, rather than being a creature of liberal choice (of a sort of existentialist gesture of authenticity but in traditionalist dress?), I think the drift of Dreher’s response is a human one. Of course, he has no chance of success. All traditionalist communities will eventually be depicted as a more or less dangerous version of the KKK. But his heart is in a good place. He doesn’t want his children to become spiritually disfigured. I can’t be mad with him for that.

    1. I have no direct quarrel with Dreher — just incredulity over this “option” business. It comes off as sloganeering more than anything else, or a “lifestyle” that is available to a very, very select few. But the same can be said for much of the “Radical Catholic” crowd as well. They claim to reject liberalism while remaining firmly at home with it, pushing for Catholics to adopt positions most cannot maintain because they lack the means.

      1. Even though I agree that you can’t argue with Dreher’s desire that his kids keep the faith, it’s hard to believe that he’s in this for much more than his next book deal. On his blog, he’s selling the BO slogan/lifestyle as hard as he sold his take on Dante (only with more dire warnings about how perilous it will be to ignore his apocalyptic forecasts). He’s pretty much done with Dante now, and moving on to the next project. He’s issuing those dire warnings daily, but admittedly crowdsourcing the content of the book, because neither he nor anyone else really knows what the BO is. I’ll wait to see what he’s about once the sales of the BO book dwindle. I could be wrong, but I suspect that this whole wave of BO blogging/trending/publishing will swell and pass without the least bit of notice from vast sectors of the population that may need the kind of Christian community support that the BO purports to offer, but won’t be touched by it because they’re completely off its class radar.

        1. I have a hard time disagreeing with this despite the fact I would like to see his motives as pure. There does seem to be a pattern here, where “Cruncy Con” faded and the “Little Way” appeared before “Dante Saved My Life” entered the horizon. And now, yes, the BO is in full swing, and not just Dreher is looking to make a name for themselves on it. Whatever royalties he receives for the BO book should kick back in part to MacIntyre; he’s the one who generated the concept after all.

          I don’t think there is any real substance to the BO; it’s another name for retreatism coupled with some fancier lifestyle choices (“culture”). There won’t be some sort of Christian outpost in America that saves Western civilization, and even if it did develop, it will develop among the Catholics, not the Orthodox. Why? Because this can only be a minority movement at best and there are hardly enough Orthodox in these lands to draw a minority movement out of. At least Catholicism has numbers. But of course some of those numbers are integralist numbers and they probably wouldn’t be terribly happy to share living space with “schismatics.”

      2. Dreher is a flake. He’s gone through Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy since leaving Protestantism maybe 20 years ago; but to listen to him to day, you’d think he was still an evangelical Protestant. For former Protestants becoming Orthodox, the move should be understood as a complete rejection of their former Protestantism, certainly not its fulfillment. But not for Dreher! I still wince when I think of him anonymously operating that website to promote Metropolitan Jonah’s bizarre, un-Orthodox agenda, still playing these petty and ultimately meaningless political games, still seemingly impervious to the teachings of the Orthodoxy he claims.

        Dreher’s Benedict Option, whatever it may be, may have some merits on its own, but certainly not coming from Dreher. Dreher seems to be one of these delusional types who are brainwashed by watching too much mainstream media and actually believes that the last 6+ years under Obama have been far worse than the preceding 8 years under that Republican administration. Puh-leeze. Obama is a useless puppet, but that preceding 8 years under that Republican administration were far more deleterious to what little of the Constitution still remained in force, not to mention all our blood and treasure expended abroad for nothing, justified by the most absurd official conspiracy theories imaginable. Where was Dreher and his Benedict Option then, when every true Christian felt the evil one’s presence in power far closer than it had ever been before or since? He was enthusiastically backing the evil one’s program through its Republican conduits. Dreher as a Christian is a fraud of the highest order.

        1. All of your fascination with Dreher only proves nothing more than he gets more attention than any of you, and some of you just can’t stand that.

          Otherwise, to plagiarize Coppola, Dreher has about as much impact among Orthodox as the inside of a walnut is made wet by immersion.

          1. Not sure why you are addressing this to me as I was only giving my opinion of Dreher since he had become a subtopic of this thread. But yes, I am aware that there are people online who claim that they cannot stand Dreher, yet obsessively follow his every move, critiquing him daily in lengthy tomes. Never understood this. I personally cannot stand Dreher and consequently do not read him. Obviously these other people consider Dreher a major threat (to what???) whereas I find him entirely irrelevant to human existence. However, it is not my impression that such Dreher-obsessives had taken over this thread.

  4. The so-called “Benedict Option” is a marketing campaign created ex nihilo by Rod Dreher solely to produce a topic other than his family for him to write a book about for you to buy. To date, he has cited marriage and his magnet arts high school as examples of what the Benedict Option might be. There are, as yet, no known limits to what the Benedict Option might include, although I feel safe citing a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic as fairly likely to be on the reject list. Short of that, though, the sky and the opportunities available to marketing seem to be the only limit.

    There is a term for those who discuss Dreher’s cynically manufactured chimera seriously: fools.

    But, then, that’s why God is merciful, isn’t it.

  5. I think ‘evangelism’ for most convert-Orthodox means 1) earnest discussion with like-minded intellectuals who are similarly enamored of elaborate liturgy and arcane theology; 2) elbowing aside the Baptists and Catholics to be the first to set up shop in the next African or South American village.

    This is a hilariously crystallized view of the Church, as if it’s always 33 AD even though you can find five other Christian sects within ten miles of most parishes and people move to what used to be called Christendom so they can be good Jews, Muslims and Hindus. Christianity is shrinking and Islam, among others, is growing. Do people seriously think this is because cowed, tongue-tied Christians can’t explain their belief system? Is this what is happening in the Middle East and, for that matter, in Great Britain or France: not enough evangelism? Nobody knows where to find us? Again, I look forward to all the anecdotes from everyone telling me how they exhort their Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and atheist neighbors to join the true Faith.

    People like to trot out the Great Commission in these debates. What about Matthew 10?

    What is the ROI for trying to convert strangers versus baptizing our children’s children? The modern vision of the Church seems to be of a book club for middle-aged converts.

  6. There are mouths to feed, bills to pay, and an uncertain future to prepare for (or against). What becomes of those who simply cannot afford the “Benedict Option,” that is, those lacking publication proceeds and/or tenure? If anti-liberalism, or any option against it, remains predicated on annual earnings, then liberalism wins hands down. The question of options turns into a question about class, and that question won’t be addressed by any six-figure luminaries anytime soon.

    Isn’t that the sort of thing the Amish and Hasidim do very well: knock off some of the sharp corners of life for their young people so they can be sheltered from the sexual meat-market, and marry and raise children in a supportive community? And yet you seem to believe there is nothing we can learn from them.

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